Posts Tagged pauliana
Vis (non) attractiva concursus. Bobek AG suggests tortious suit brought by liquidator (‘Peeters /Gatzen’) is covered by Brussels I Recast.
I earlier posted a guest blog on the qualification of the Dutch Peeters /Gatzen suit, a damages claim based on tort, brought by a liquidator against a third party having acted wrongfully towards the creditors. Bobek AG opined two weeks back in C-535/17 NK (insolvency practitioner for a baillif practice) v BNP Paribas Fortis.
His Opinion is of relevance not just for the consideration of jurisdiction, but perhaps even more so (for less litigated so far) for the analysis of applicable law.
Roel Verheyden has commented on the Opinion in Dutch here, and Sandrine Piet had earlier contextualised the issues (also in Dutch) here. She clarifies that the suit was introduced by the Dutch Supreme Court in 1983, allowing the insolvency practitioner (as EU insolvency law now calls them) to claim in tort against third parties whose actions have diminished the collective rights of the creditors, even if the insolvency person or company at issue was not entitled to such suit. The Advocate General himself, in his trademark lucid style, summarises the suit excellently.
Importantly, the Peeters /Gatzen is not a classic pauliana (avoidance) suit: Bobek AG at 16: ‘The power of the liquidator to bring a Peeters-Gatzen action is not limited to cases where the third party belongs to the circle of persons who, based on a Paulian (bankruptcy) claim .. would be liable for involvement in allegedly detrimental acts. The liquidator’s competence relates more generally to the damage caused to the general body of creditors by the wrongful act of a third party involved in causing that damage. The third party need not have caused the damage or have profited from it: it is sufficient that that third party could have prevented the damage but cooperated instead.’
In the case at issue, the third party is BNP Paribas Fortis, who had allowed the sole director of the company to withdraw large amounts of cash from the company’s account.
Firstly, on the jurisdictional issue, Nickel /Goeldner and Nortel had intervened after the interim judgments of the Dutch courts, creating doubt in their minds as to the correct delineation between the Insolvency and Brussels I Recast Regulation. The Advocate-General’s approach in my view is the correct one, and I refer to his Opinion for the solid arguments he deploys. In essence, the DNA of the suit are the ordinary rules of civil law (re: tort). That it be introduced by the insolvency practitioner (here, the liquidator) and that it is the case-law on liquidation proceedings which has granted that right to the liquidator, is not materially relevant. Note that the AG correctly adds in footnote 40 that even if the suit is not subject to the Insolvency Regulation, that Regulation does not disappear from the litigation. In particular, given that liquidation proceedings are underway, the lex concursus determines the ius agendi of the liquidator to bring the suit in tort, in another Member State (Belgium, on the basis of Article 7(2) or 4 Brussels I Recast).
Now, for applicable law, the AG first of all completes the analysis on the basis of the Insolvency Regulation, in the unlikely event the CJEU were not to follow him on the jurisdictional issue. Here (para 85 ff) the referring court wishes to know whether, if the Peeters-Gatzen action is covered by the Insolvency Regulation, such a claim would be governed, pursuant to Article 4(1) of that Regulation, by the law of the Member State where the insolvency proceedings were opened as regards both the power of the liquidator to bring that claim and the substantive law applicable to that claim. This question seeks to determine whether it is possible to follow the approach of the second-instance court in the main proceedings, and separate the law governing the powers of the liquidator (ius agendi) from the law applicable to the merits of the claim. The powers of the liquidator would then be governed by the lex fori concursus (Dutch law, per Article 4(2)(c) Insolvency Regulation). That article states that ‘the law of the State of the opening of proceedings … shall determine in particular … the respective powers of the debtor and the liquidator’. However, the merits of the claim would then be governed by the law applicable by virtue of the general (non-insolvency) conflict of law rules. In the present case that would lead to application of residual Dutch conflict of law rules, because the Rome II Regulation does not apply ratione temporis as the AG further explains. These rules lead to Belgian law being the lex causae.
Within the assumption of the Insolvency Regulation determining jurisdiction (for see footnote 40 as reported above, re ius agendi) the AG emphasises the Regulation’s goal of Gleichlauf: at 89: If the Peeters-Gatzen action were covered by the Insolvency Regulation, all its elements would be governed exclusively by the conflict of law rules of that regulation.
(Current) Article 16’s exception such as in Nike and Lutz does not come into play for as Bobek AG notes at 94, ‘It is difficult to see how the Peeters-Gatzen action at issue in the main proceedings could be qualified as a rule ‘relating to the voidness, voidability or unenforceability of legal acts detrimental to all the creditors’, in the sense of Article 4(2)(m) [old, GAVC] of the Insolvency Regulation. The purpose of such an action is not a declaration of the voidness, voidability or unenforceability of an act of the third party, but the recovery of damages based on the wrongful behaviour of that third party towards the creditors. Therefore, as Article 4(2)(m) [old, GAVC] of the regulation would not apply in the main proceedings, the exception in Article 13 [old, GAVC] could not apply either.’
The AG finally discusses the referring court’s question whether if the Peeters-Gatzen action is exclusively subject to the lex fori concursus, it would be possible to take into account, whether directly or at least by analogy, and on the basis of Article 17 Rome II read in conjunction with Article 13 (now 16) of the Insolvency Regulation, the security regulations and codes of conduct applicable at the place of the alleged wrongful act (that is to say, in Belgium), such as financial rules of conduct for banks. Article 17 Rome II reads ‘In assessing the conduct of the person claimed to be liable, account shall be taken, as a matter of fact and in so far as is appropriate, of the rules of safety and conduct which were in force at the place and time of the event giving rise to the liability.‘
I have argued before that Article 17 Rome II does not have the rather extensive impact which some attribute to it. The AG, after signalling that the Article is yet to be applied by the CJEU, notes that Rome II does not apply here ratione temporis. He then concludes with an aside (it is not articulated as a proper argument – which is just as well for it is circular I suppose): at 104: ‘the more pertinent question is… whether it is really necessary to have recourse to a cumbersome legal construction, in this case the application of rules by analogy, outside of their material and temporal scope, in order to reach a solution (the application of Belgian law) which solves a problem (the applicability of Netherlands law by virtue of the Insolvency Regulation) that should not have been created in the first place (since the Peeters-Gatzen claim at hand should fall within the scope of the Brussels I Regulation). In any event, I am of the view, also in this regard, that these questions by the referring court rather confirm that there is no close connection between that action and the insolvency proceedings.’
(Handbook of) EU private international law, 2nd ed. 2016, Chapter 5, Heading 5.4.1, Heading 5.7.
I called Bobek AG’s Opinion in C-337/17 ‘solid’ – by which I also implied: convincing. Is the actio pauliana by a Polish company against a Spanish company, which had bought immovable property from the former’s contracting party, one relating to ‘contract’ within the meaning of Article 7(1) Brussels I Recast?
Bobek AG Opined it is not. The CJEU today held it is. I disagree.
Firstly, the second chamber, at 29 ff, repeats the inaccurate references in Valach and Tunkers, that (at 30) ‘actions which fall outside the scope of [the Insolvency Regulation] fall within the scope of [Brussels I Recast].’ This oft repeated quote suggest dovetailing between the two Regulations, a view which is patently incorrect: readers can use the tag ‘dovetail’ or ‘arrangement’ (for ‘scheme of arrangement’) for my view on same; see e.g. Agrokor.
Having held (this was not seriously in doubt) that Brussels I Recast is engaged, the Court then takes a much wider view of the Handte formula than advocated by Bobek AG. The Court at 37 refers to Granarolo, merely in fact to emphasise the requirement of strict interpretation of the jurisdictional rules which vary Article 4’s actor sequitur forum rei’s rule. At 43 follows the core of its reasoning: ‘By [the pauliana] the creditor seeks a declaration that the transfer of assets by the debtor to a third party has caused detriment to the creditor’s rights deriving from the binding nature of the contract and which correspond with the obligations freely consented to by the debtor. The cause of this action therefore lies essentially in the breach of these obligations towards the creditor to which the debtor agreed.’
The Court does not refer to Ergo, let alone to Sharpston AG’s ‘centre of gravity’ test in same, however it would seem that this may have influenced it. Yet in my view this is way too extensive a stretch of the Handte or Sharpston AG’s Ergo formula. Litigation in the pauliana pitches the creditor against the third party. It would take really quite specific circumstances for Handte to be met in the relation between these two. That a contractual relation features somewhere in the factual matrix is almost always true.
For a comparative benchmark, reference can be made to Refcomp where the Court took a very limiting view on subrogration of choice of court.
The Court’s formulation at 45 is entirely circular: were the creditor not able to sue in the forum contractus, ‘the creditor would be forced to bring proceedings before the court of the place where the defendant is domiciled, that forum, as prescribed by Article 4(1) of Regulation No 1215/2012, possibly having no link to the place of performance of the obligations of the debtor with regard to his creditor.’ Indeed: because the pauliana does not mordicus have to links to that place; it is not because it might not, that a forum contractus has to be conjured up to secure these links.
The Court then quite forcefully and seemingly without much hesitation identifies a specific forum contractus (unlike the AG who had suggested that that very difficulty supports his view that there simply is no forum contractus to speak of): at 46: ‘the action brought by the creditor aims to preserve its interests in the performance of the obligations derived from the contract concerning construction works, it follows that ‘the place of performance of the obligation in question’ is, according to Article 7(1)(b) of this regulation, the place where, under the contract, the construction services were provided, namely Poland.’
The initial contractual obligation between creditor and debtor therefore creates crucial jurisdictional consequences vis-a-vis third parties whose appearance in the factual matrix presents itself only very downstream. That, I would suggest, does not at all serve the predictability which the Chamber (rightly) emphasises at the very outset of its judgment as being the driving principle behind its interpretation.
I am not convinced by this judgment. (And yes, I am being polite).
Feniks: Bobek AG rejects forum contractus for Actio Pauliana and defends predictability of the Brussels regime.
Is the actio pauliana by a Polish company against a Spanish company, which had bought immovable property from the former’s contracting party, one relating to ‘contract’ within the meaning of Article 7(1) Brussels I Recast?
Bobek AG Opined in C-337/17 Feniks v Azteca on 21 June. His Opinion features among others a legal history class on the action pauliana, and eventually a justifiable conclusion: the action is not one in contract. In C-115/88 Reichert I the Court held that the French civil law actio pauliana does not fall within exclusive jurisdiction concerning rights in rem in immovable property (Article 24(1). Soon afterwards, the Court added in C-261/90 Reichert II that the same actio pauliana was neither a provisional measure nor an action bringing proceedings concerned with the enforcement of a judgment. It was also not a matter relating to tort, delict or quasi-delict.
That left only the potential for a forum contractus to be decided.
The AG reviews a number of arguments to come to his decision. One of those I find particularly convincing: at 62: assuming that the applicability of the head of jurisdiction for matters relating to a contract were to be contemplated, the question that immediately arises is which of the two contracts potentially involved should be taken as relevant? To which of the two contracts would an actio pauliana in fact relate? Among others (at 69-70) Sharpston AG’s Opinion in Ergo is discussed in this respect and the AG in my view is right when he dismisses the contractual relations at issue as an anchor point.
At 69 the AG also adds a knock-out point which could logically have come at the very beginning of the Opinion:
‘it should also be added and underlined that both approaches outlined above fail to satisfy the requirement of ‘obligation freely assumed by one party towards another’, [the AG refers to Handte, GAVC] that is by the Defendant towards the Applicant. Even if the case-law of this Court does not require that there is identity between the parties to the proceeding and to the respective contract, it appears difficult to consider that the mere filing of an actio pauliana creates a substantive-law relationship between the Applicant and the Defendant resulting from, for example, some kind of legal subrogation founded by an act of COLISEUM (as the Applicant’s initial debtor).’
Readers further may want to take note of para 92: the AG’s view to treat the power of recitals with caution. The AG ends at 97-98 with a robust defence of the Brussels regime, with specific reference to the common law (footnotes omitted):
‘What has to be sought is a principled answer that applies largely independently of the factual elements in an individual case. While fully acknowledging and commending the attractive flexibility of rules such as forum(non) conveniens that allow for derogation in the light of the facts of a specific case, the fact remains that the structure and the logic of the Brussels Convention and Regulations is indeed built on different premises. What is understandably needed in a diverse legal space composed of 28 legal orders are ex ante reasonably foreseeable, and thus perhaps somewhat inflexible rules at times, and less of an ex post facto explanation (mostly as to why one declared oneself competent) heavily dependent on a range of factual elements.
All in all, in the current state of EU law, actio pauliana seems to be one of the rare examples that only allows for the applicability of the general rule and an equally rare confirmation of the fact that ‘… there is no obvious foundation for the idea that there should always or even often be an alternative to the courts of the defendant’s domicile’. ‘
A solid opinion with extra reading for the summer season (on the Pauliana).
Vinyls Italia. A boon for conflict of laws (with a fraus component) and important findings on the insolvency Pauliana.
Another one from the exam queue. I reported earlier on Szpunar AG’s Opinion in C-54/16 Vinyls Italia – readers may want to refer tot that post before reading on. The case concerns the extent to which a bona fide creditor may insulate payments made to it by the insolvent debtor, to the detriment of the collectivity of the creditors, using choice of law for its contract with the debtor away from the lex concursus. The Court held on 8 June, much along the lines of its AG and earlier precedent especially Nike with respect to anti-avoidance actions. The judgment therefore is not of great novelty for this part of the insolvency Regulation. It is on the other hand of crucial importance for the interpretation of ‘international’ in European private international law.
Firstly, whether the court hearing the insolvency proceedings can or must raise the Article 13 (now 16) even if the party profiting from the insulation of its payments from the insolvency, has failed expressly to do so in its submissions. This, the CJEU held, is a matter of procedure, not harmonised in the Insolvency Regulation and lex fori therefore, subject to the usual condition that effet utile is guaranteed and that EU law is equally applied as national law.
The Court had already held in Nike that the defendant in an anti-avoidance (Pauliana) action has to prove both the facts from which the conclusion can be drawn that the act is unchallengeable and the absence of any evidence that would militate against that conclusion (at 25). The Court in Vinyls Italia qualifies that statement: the party bearing the burden of proof must show that, where the lex causae makes it possible to challenge an act regarded as being detrimental, the conditions to be met in order for that challenge to be upheld, which differ from those of the lex fori concursus, have not actually been fulfilled. However defendant does not have to show that the lex causae does not provide, in general or in the abstract, any means to challenge the act in question: such means of challenging the act almost always exist, at least in the abstract, and such strict interpretation would therefore deprive Article 13 (now 16) of its effectiveness (at 38). Of course how wide exactly the net of voidness needs to be cast, is not entirely clear from the judgment.
The final question then deals with the possibility of relying on (now) Article 16 in the situation provided for in Article 3(3) of the Rome I Regulation, that is to say, where all the elements relevant to the situation in question between the parties to a contract are located in a country other than the country whose law is chosen by those parties. Now, the Rome I Regulation does not ratione temporis apply to the facts at issue and on the similar provisions of the Rome Convention, the referring court is not entitled to ask questions. The CJEU therefore decides to simply reply to the question of this being a purely domestic contract, by reference to Article 16 of the insolvency Regulation only. It nevertheless however uses both Regulation and Convention a contrario. Both existed at the time of adoption of the Insolvency Regulation. The latter does not include an Article 3(3) type provision. That it does not, must, the Court held, mean that the Insolvency Regulation saw no need at all to limit the use of lex contractus for insulation reasons, even in the case of purely domestic contracts.
There is however one condition: Fraus (omnia corrumpit) aka abuse of (EU) law. Here, the Court refers to its findings last summer in C‑423/15 Kratzer. EU law cannot be relied on for abusive or fraudulent ends. A finding of abuse requires a combination of objective and subjective elements. First, with regard to the objective element, that finding requires that it must be apparent from a combination of objective circumstances that, despite formal observance of the conditions laid down by EU rules, the purpose of those rules has not been achieved. Second, such a finding requires a subjective element, namely that it must be apparent from a number of objective factors that the essential aim of the transactions concerned is to obtain an undue advantage.
Here, Article 16 may be disregarded only in a situation where it would appear objectively that the objective pursued by that application, in this context, of ensuring the legitimate expectation of the parties in the applicability of specific legislation, has not been achieved (a tough condition if the lex contractus is wisely chosen), and that the contract was made subject to the law of a specific Member State artificially, that is to say, with the primary aim, not of actually making that contract subject to the legislation of the chosen Member State, but of relying on the law of that Member State in order to exempt the contract, or the acts which took place in the performance of the contract, from the application of the lex fori concursus. In this respect (at 55), choice of law of a Member State other than the Member State in which parties are established does not create any presumption regarding an intention to circumvent the rules on insolvency for abusive or fraudulent ends.
The findings on fraus amount to strong support for a wide interpretation of the concept ‘international’ in EU private international law. (That an entirely Italian situation was made ‘international’ simply by choice of law ex-Italy was not considered an issue). A development to be applauded. These same findings also make it very difficult within the context of Article 13 (now 16) successfully to mount a challenge of payments detrimental to the collectivity. This aspect of the case is what i.a. Gilles Lindemans objects to in the judgment. However the CJEU logic I suppose lies in what it sees firmly as the object and purpose of Article 16: it protects the legitimate expectations of the party who has benefitted from an act detrimental to all the creditors. In some way it prevents contractual sclerosis for parties suspected of being close to payment issues. Securitisation is facilitated if the lex causae is fixed, independent of the lex concursus. Not just fraus (a very improbable route now) but probably more importantly the burden of proof per C-310/14 Nike, protects the collectivity.
(Handbook of) EU private international law, 2nd ed. 2016, Chapter 5, Heading 5.7.1. Chapter 3, Heading 220.127.116.11.
Postscript for an example of where Article 4(2)m, lex fori concursus for rules relating to the voidness, voidability or unenforceability of legal acts detrimental to all the creditors, applies without correction, see C-594/14 Kornhaas.
In my posting on Lutz I flagged the increasing relevance of Article 13 of the Insolvency Regulation. This Article neutralises the lex concursus in favour of the lex causae governing the act between a person (often a company) benefiting from an act detrimental to all the creditors, and the insolvent company. Classic example is a payment made by the insolvent company to one particular creditor. Evidently this is detrimental to the other creditors, who are confronted with reduced means against which they can exercise their rights. Article 13 reads
Detrimental acts. Article 4(2)(m) shall not apply where the person who benefited from an act detrimental to all the creditors provides proof that: – the said act is subject to the law of a Member State other than that of the State of the opening of proceedings, and – that law does not allow any means of challenging that act in the relevant case.
In the case at issue, C-310/14, Nike (incorporated in The Netherlands) had a franchise agreement with Sportland Oy, a Finnish company. This agreement is governed by Dutch law (through choice of law). Sportland paid for a number of Nike deliveries. Payments went ahead a few months before and after the opening of the insolvency proceedings. Sportland’s liquidator attempts to have the payments annulled, and to have Nike reimburse.
Under Finnish law, para 10 of the Law on recovery of assets provides that the payment of a debt within three months of the prescribed date may be challenged if it is paid with an unusual means of payment, is paid prematurely, or in an amount which, in view of the amount of the debtor’s estate, may be regarded as significant. Under Netherlands law, according to Article 47 of the Law on insolvency (Faillissementswet), the payment of an outstanding debt may be challenged only if it is proven that when the recipient received the payment he was aware that the application for insolvency proceedings had already been lodged or that the payment was agreed between the creditor and the debtor in order to give priority to that creditor to the detriment of the other creditors.
Nike first of all argued, unsuccessfully in the Finnish courts, that the payment was not ‘unusual’. The Finnish courts essentially held that under relevant Finnish law, the payment was unusual among others because the amount paid was quite high in relation to the overall assets of the company. Nike argues in subsidiary order that Dutch law, the lex causae of the franchise agreement, should be applied. Attention then focussed (and the CJEU held on) the burden of proof under Article 13, as well as the exact meaning of ‘that law does not allow any means of challenging that act in the relevant case.‘
Firstly, the Finnish version of the Regulation seemingly does not include wording identical or similar to ‘in the relevant case‘ (Article 13 in fine). Insisting on a restrictive interpretation of Article 13, which it had also held in Lutz, the CJEU held that all the circumstances of the cases need to be taken into account. The person profiting from the action cannot solely rely ‘in a purely abstract manner, on the unchallengeable character of the act at issue on the basis of a provision of the lex causae‘ (at 21).
Related to this issue the referring court had actually quoted the Virgos Schmit report, which reads in relevant part (at 137) ‘By “any means” it is understood that the act must not be capable of being challenged using either rules on insolvency or general rules of the national law applicable to the act’. This interpretation evidently reduces the comfort zone for the party who benefitted from the act. It widens the search area, so to speak. It was suggested, for instance, that Dutch law in general includes a prohibition of abuse of rights, which is wider than the limited circumstances of the Faillissementswet, referred to above.
The CJEU surprisingly does not quote the report however it does come to a similar conclusion: at 36: ‘the expression ‘does not allow any means of challenging that act …’ applies, in addition to the insolvency rules of the lex causae, to the general provisions and principles of that law, taken as a whole.’
Attention then shifted to the burden of proof: which party is required to plead that the circumstances for application of a provision of the lex causae leading to voidness, voidability or unenforceability of the act, do not exist? The CJEU held on the basis of Article 13’s wording and overall objectives that it is for the defendant in an action relating to the voidness, voidability or unenforceability of an act to provide proof, on the basis of the lex causae, that the act cannot be challenged. Tthe defendant has to prove both the facts from which the conclusion can be drawn that the act is unchallengeable and the absence of any evidence that would militate against that conclusion (at 25).
However, (at 27) ‘although Article 13 of the regulation expressly governs where the burden of proof lies, it does not contain any provisions on more specific procedural aspects. For instance, that article does not set out, inter alia, the ways in which evidence is to be elicited, what evidence is to be admissible before the appropriate national court, or the principles governing that court’s assessment of the probative value of the evidence adduced before it.‘
‘(T)he issue of determining the criteria for ascertaining whether the applicant has in fact proven that the act can be challenged falls within the procedural autonomy of the relevant Member State, regard being had to the principles of effectiveness and equivalence.’ (at 44)
The Court therefore once again bumps into the limits of autonomous interpretation. How ad hoc, concrete (as opposed to ‘in the abstract’: see the CJEU’s words, above) the defendant has to be in providing proof (and foreign expert testimony with it), may differ greatly in the various Member States. Watch this space for more judicial review of Article 13.
Postscript 7 December 2015: Bob Wessels has annotated the case here.